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Kristin Hove Herrera donates a kidney to save the life of a total stranger

Kristen Hove Herrera altruistic kidney donor
Photograph taken by Patty Kay Spinks

We often hear about the fortunate people who have “found a kidney”. Found? Hardly. Given, actually, and by someone who has made a conscious and heroic decision to save the life of someone in extreme peril, someone in renal failure. When Kristin Hove Herrera learned that she could save the life of a stranger just for the sake of saving the life of a stranger, she did not hesitate. Something inside her clicked, she knew she was going to do it. She never agonized over it.

The public is, through press, documentaries, movies and medical television shows, more or less aware of the plight and surgery of the recipients, but who is paying attention to the donors who go through the same surgery, the same risks, and the same recovery? What is the process of donation? What are the risks and the rewards of being a donor, and how, by the way, does that kidney get from one end of the country to the other?

This is all possible now through the creation of an amazing tree of life, a donation chain started by a father who wanted to give a kidney to his daughter but sadly was not a match. The power of this chain starts with one altruistic donor who gives to a stranger in need. The recipient’s family or community then donates a kidney to be given to someone else whose life would be cut short without a transplant. And, so on, each kidney a link to strengthen the donation chain.

There is no transplantation, no life saving without the courage of someone willing to give up a healthy body part, someone willing to go through a system that starts with rigorous pre-op procedure of blood-tests, CAT scans, 24 hour urine output, urinalysis, and bowel prep, which is, as Kristin says, "no fun, but it is what it is".

Major abdominal surgery is never risk-free; there is the hazard of infection, general anesthesia, post-operative pain and recovery time. Kristin is quick to point out that weighing the personal discomfort against saving a life, made the decision easy for her. The physical examination is a start to the donor’s journey to be followed by the psychological evaluation during which the donor is guaranteed the right to stop the process at any point. It must be clear that the donor is being neither pressured by guilt nor being paid in any way. And, the final question for altruistic donors, “why?” For Kristin the answer was easy, it was the right thing to do. But her motivation went touchingly and profoundly further. Since Kristin and her husband had decided not to have children, donating a kidney was a way of giving life. “I am literally saving the recipients life, but more, saving the lives of others, their families, their communities, their co-workers. The kidney I gave led to several others being donated, each one saving a life of someone who could not function because they were on dialysis all the time.” Kristin, who hopes to see the numbers rising, is part of the 1% altruistic donors.

The process of transport before transplant is an adventure all its own, a precise choreography of industries and people. From the surgery to the cold-pack for transport and then into the hands of the courier who will accompany the kidney all the way to its destination. Because kidneys cannot be banked and have to be used in less than 30 hours, weather watch is critical. A delayed plane could be lethal for a person waiting for a kidney, so depending on weather conditions, surgeries may be postponed or done earlier than scheduled. Planes transporting organs are given priority for takeoff and will be held for the courier who is accompanying the organ the entire way if the courier gets stuck in traffic. The courier is seated in the front of the plane to assure that the kidney will be first off the plane. And, with all this meticulous preparation Kristin’s kidney was off to Ohio.

Most donors know their recipients. Kristin says about hers, “She probably knows the same amount about me as I do about her.” If they wanted to be in touch, they would both have to be in agreement, and although Kristin was open has not heard from her recipient. Kristin knows that she may not hear from the woman who received her kidney, and although she sounds fine with that, she would, in truth, like to hear. She can see how, as a recipient, there would be a lot of ambivalence. She says, “they have the kidney now and want to put the sickness behind them to lead their healthy lives.” But ambivalence lies with the donor as well, who has, after all, given out part of her healthy body and may want to know how it is doing and that the recipient is doing well.

Her love letter? Fabulous and then some. It is to express her love and concern for her lost body part. She was never one to talk to herself, but she actually started talking to her kidney before the surgery, and had quite a bit to say to this tiny organ that was about to leave her for a life elsewhere. To hear her wish her kidney a fond farewell and hear about the wishes she has for its future happiness is exceptional. And, the loneliness the other kidney may still feel? Just listen to her encourage those organs to forge ahead in their new lives. The joy and laughter in her voice is a lesson in real giving.

She could, of course, also write to her recipient to express hopes that her kidney is doing as well for her as it did for Kristin herself. She could write letters to all the donors in the chain. She could write to all the recipients. So many possibilities and each one a reflection of a life saved. She could write a book. And, don’t we hope she does!

From me to you with love in the air,

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